Archives For Fulbright

Arugam Bay

December 18, 2012 — 1 Comment

The sea has a rhythm to it; its churning is constant, and meditative. In the ocean you feel powerless, as the waves bash you and the current pulls you along. Submerging yourself in the surf, letting go of control, and having your body be tossed around – weightless – by the sea is transcendental. Once you realize how minimal your existence is when compared to the vastness of the ocean, it is at once awe inspiring and intimidating. Looking at wreckages of buildings on the shore, victims of the 2004 tsunami, is a testament to how little man can do to protect itself from the sea. To think that concrete and rebar are a match to the force of the ocean is laughable.

This weekend has found me in Arugam Bay, one the top surf spots in the world. Leaving Trinco on Friday, it took me about 7 hours to cover the 300 km (186 miles) on bus. I started my journey at the Trinco bus yard, telling the driver I was headed to Arugam bay, over three bus transfers and many miles I was always told by fellow travelers where to get off and what bus to get on next. It was bizarre, as I had only told one man, but the entire bus seemed to be looking out of me. Sri Lankan hospitality cannot be understated. I arrived and checked into my hotel, the aptly named Watermusic. My friends were in transit on the overnight bus from Colombo, and I was surprised to find I was the hotel’s sole guest.

It is off-season in Arugam Bay; I’m told the real surf doesn’t start until April. The throngs of beachfront hotels are empty, not to mention those off the beach. In stark contrast, it is impossible to get a room at some of the Southern beach spots. After unpacking, I wander down the beach in search of dinner.

At the Galaxy Lounge Hotel I manage to find an open restaurant, it even had a few patrons. I ordered my meal and sat looking out at the water. I happened to start talking to an older British couple on vacation, and ended up joining them for dinner. As it turned out, the wife was Sri Lankan. She was born into a burgher family, but raised in the UK due to the troubles of the war. Her family owns a number of highly successful businesses in Sri Lanka; interestingly enough they even supplied the SL Army with barbed wire – a Tamil supplying the war effort. Due to Sri Lanka’s currency policy it is very hard to get money out of the island. So they were on vacation, paid for by their firm, as a way of spending rupees. Quite interesting, to say the least.

After a few glasses of arrack with my fellow travelers, I headed to bed. Around 3:45 I was woken, and disoriented. There was a blaring noise, and I couldn’t track its source. Switching on the lights I climbed out of bed and realized my mobile was the source of the noise; my friends had arrived at the hotel from Colombo and needed the front gate to be unlocked. There was a light drizzle, as I tracked down the night manager and let my friends in. After a few hours of sleep I woke up and went for a run, before joining my friends for morning coffee (not of the instant variety!).

The day was spent fighting the surf. As luck would have it, the day was overcast. Not exactly ideal beach conditions, but it sheltered us from the ferocity of the Sri Lankan sun. We spent most of the afternoon lounging around until the rain came, and then it was back to the hotel to warm up with some hot toddies.

The weekend passed that way, and Sunday came too quickly. I caught the 2pm bus to Batticaloa and napped on the journey north.

We pulled into the Batticaloa bus terminal a little after five, and I went in search of my transfer. As soon as I got to the terminal’s overhang the skies opened up and a tropic downpour started. I found the terminal manager and inquired about busses. I was quite dismayed when I was told the next bus would be at 4am, and a moment of panic came over me. I asked a few other bus drivers, and they seemed to confirm that fact. Now that I wasn’t in a rush to catch a bus, I went in search of the bathroom. After relieving myself I sat down, and started thinking over my options. I promptly took out my Lonely Planet, and started searching for cheap hostels in the area. At this point, someone – he didn’t work at the bus station – came up to me and said more than asked “Trinco bus.” He was pointing in the distance, and I confirmed that I was looking for a bus to Trinco. His next and finals words were “police circle, 6pm”, after which he walked off.

It was almost 5:30, and I had no idea where this police circle was, or how far it was. The rain had stopped, and I started walking towards the other end of the parking lot. Tuk-tuks were lined up about 500 feet away; I hoped they knew the place. It always seems to rain at the most inopportune time. I was twenty paces outside of the cover of the bus station and in a moment I was caught in the height of a downpour. Time was passing quickly so I dashed to the closest tuk-tuk, whose driver was holding open the flaps yelling for me to get out of the rain. I settled in the vehicle, drenched to the bone, and said only police circle. With that he started the engine and took off; we were down the street by the time I realized we had not set a price for the journey. I asked, and he said 80 rupees; it was one of those rare times when I had no desire or need to bargain. Not knowing how far away my next stop was, I was in no position to bargain – not to mention the ride would cost me on $0.60.

When I got to the roundabout I went into the largest supermarket, where several people were seeking shelter from the rain near the entrance. I inquired about the Trinco bus, and happened upon a local university student – who was home from Australia on break. He knew of the bus, and told me he’d make sure I got on it. After he made a few phone calls, we walked down a few stores where I was able to purchase a ticket and reserve a seat. The seat reservation cost an additional 30 rupees – always pay the fee to reserve a seat. The ticket salesman told me that the bus would come around 6:20.

By 6:10 anytime a bus came I would glance at the bus, and then at my new friend. After a few minutes of this he told me, “you Americans worry too much, I’ll make sure you’re on the bus”. I can’t remember if I even told him I was an American before that, but I had to laugh. After that I stopped craning my neck to look at the oncoming busses and started enjoying our conversation. Around 6:30 a bus came and he pointed at it, and told me to run. I shook his hand and was off, the bus barely slowed down – and never came to a complete stop – as a crowd of people started pouring onto it. It was crowded, and loud, but I found the last empty seat and quickly took it.

The seat placement was less than ideal. I was located under the buses single speaker – which blared incomprehensible music a few decibels above comfort level. The woman next to me had her daughter, who was around the age of 14, on her [my] lap. The aisles were so full that I was being pushed on from those crowds on the other side. No, it wasn’t ideal. But for a few hours I could manage, at least I was on my way. By 10:45 I was in Trinco, and the number of riders had thinned over the last few hours. I got a tuk-tuk back home, and passed out in my bed. I awoke right before 8am, not believing I had slept in so late, ready to start a day of teaching. A short journey

A Sri Lankan Wedding

December 13, 2012 — 1 Comment

My mother always told me that in my twenties I would attend a lot of weddings. If she had told me my first wedding would have been in Sri Lanka, I would have laughed… One of my goals for my year in Sri Lanka was to attend a wedding, and I’m happy to cross that off the list. I’m sad to say though my expectations of a Bollywood style event were unrealistic, but it was a great experience.

On Monday my afternoon class was pushed back a few hours, unbeknownst to me, as there was a wedding to attend. One of the Sarvodaya staff members was getting married, and the entire office was set to attend. We piled into a van, squishing and squeezing to fit everyone in – the air conditioner was on the fritz. The women were clad in their best saris, rich colors that were bedazzled. The men wore simpler button down shirts and slacks.

Once we were on our way the staff realized that they had left the gift for the groom in the office, we turned around and headed back to the office. Envelope in hand, we were on our way. The driver was going quickly to make up for lost time, and a traffic officer pulled us over for speeding. A short while later we were pulling up in front of a two-story hotel in the heart of Trinco town.

Hotels in Sri Lanka rarely have rooms to rent; they’re more akin to restaurants. In Sri Lankan English a hotel means anything from a shack of a restaurant to a fairly upscale establishment. Places that rent out rooms are generally called guesthouses, save for the five-star locations that also go by hotel.

When we entered my head was adorned with gold and red tilaka. We then climbed upstairs and started eating. Saffron rice was served with chicken curry and an assortment of vegetables and salads. We ate, and the staff laughed as my face turned red from the savory, but spicy food. The swelling of my lips kept pace with my intake of chilies and curries. After I finished eating my lunch, a kind soul brought me some vanilla ice cream – which soothed my enflamed mouth.

Once all the staff was finished eating we headed downstairs, and entered the queue to have our picture taken with the Bride and Groom. In an assembly line fashion groups of people were shuffled in an out, arranged in symmetrical order around the newlyweds, and their pictures were taken. It was a surprisingly efficient and well coordinated effort. After we had taken our pictures with the couple, we were on our way out the door.

The bride and groom

The bride and groom

Near the door stood a beautiful wedding cake, but it was not edible. Wedding cakes in Sri Lanka have a core of styrofoam, and are intricately decorated. If you want your cake to last all day, and stand up to the heat and humidity of this nation, it can’t be made out of something as flimsy as a mixture of flour, milk, and sugar. Instead, when you are leaving you get handed a prepackaged portion of cake – about the size of a deck of cards. It’s called Rick Cake, something similar to fruitcake. Delicious.

The issue of a love or arranged marriage is a peculiar thing. In the West, youths are left to their own devices to find mates. While in the East, many marriages are arranged. And this term has quite a wide definition. Arranged marriages could be anything from a simple introduction, where two families decide to get their kids together. Or it could be something as formal as your parents placing ads in the calendar, detailing your looks, age, qualifications, income, dowry (or inheritance), and horoscope. From what I can gather the institution is more like a partnership, or business. And please don’t take that to have a negative or cold meaning. I’ve met several couples that did not really know each other before they were wed, and they seem incredibly happy. The marriage is set up for one goal, to produce a family. The husband and wife have different interests and goals, but they have joined together to raise children to the best of their ability. My friend who got married wasn’t quite a product of an arranged marriage, but he didn’t meet his wife on his own. He seemed really perplexed about how I was supposed to find a wife; he viewed it as a huge burden.

Rich Cake

Recycled Air

December 12, 2012 — 2 Comments

Four flights down, one to go. It’s nighttime in Mumbai, and I can’t help but wonder how this mosquito got through the scrupulous security. I cannot count the number of times I’ve been x-rayed, sent through metal detectors, fondled in all the wrong places, and generally hassled. The time difference between Mumbai and Kathmandu is, curiously, fifteen minutes. Looking back, it has been quite a week.

Our driver picked up all the Fulbright ETAs in Colombo and we were whisked off the airport. When you enter Colombo airport the first thing you do is to go through a preliminary security checkpoint before going through customs – all flights out of Colombo are international. Another point of interest, all of the prices in the airport are listed in USD and SLR. I found this surprising because not many Americans come to Sri Lanka; most of the tourists are European. I think these two facts say a lot about the respective countries.

When we landed in Mumbai, we had about eight hours to kill. I went around to every lounge I could find to see if my AmEx would get me free access, but to no avail. I was fortunate however, to stumble across the employee lounge – which was completely empty. The lounge was quite nice, save for the vigorous use of air conditioning. I was dressed for Sri Lanka’s tropical climate, and had checked all of my warm clothes, as had my fellow Fulbrighters. We ended up huddling together for warmth while trying to catch a few hours of sleep.

The Mumbai airport offers free WiFi, if you have a local number. After a few hours of trying to get this number I was told that you could get around it by asking for a code from the airport helpdesk – which was located before customs. I made sure to note that for my return flight.

When we got to Kathmandu the visa process began. Since we were traveling for a quasi government conference, we were granted free visas. Though claiming the free visa was not as easy as I had hoped. We needed photos, which I didn’t bring. So I went to get one, and realized that I only had Sri Lankan Rupees on me; and in Nepal they will not exchange SLR. So after a bit of finagling, I was able to secure some Nepalese Rupees to pay for my photos and claim my visa.

After a bumpy forty-five minute drive, through alleys and streets that did not appear to be roads, we arrived at the hotel. After checking in I was given a key to room 316, I went up to the room and was surprised to find it full of suitcases. I went back down to the hotel manager; he informed me the room was booked, and handed me another key. Funny enough, that room was also occupied. The third time seemed to be the charm, when I entered my room I could not detect the presence of other people. This experience – at a five star hotel – says a lot about Nepal. It was a great, and telling, start to my time in Nepal.

I got settled into my hotel room and turned on the shower. The frigid water that came out of the pipes soon ran warm, my first hot shower in months. The bathroom windows soon fogged over, and the smell of iron permeated the air. The water in Kathmandu is quite poor, and not drinkable. Even after a few months of dealing with Sri Lankan water, even brushing my teeth with their water was cause for digestive problems.

After a much needed shower, it was time to explore the city. I walked up to the main road, and started heading towards the Standard Chartered to secure some currency. I was struck by the particle pollution in the valley; between the fumes being emitted by vehicles and the abundant amount of dust, I really wasn’t surprised. After getting some currency, it was time to get some tea and relax before dinner. We stopped in a local teashop, and it was a real treat. I had a glass of boiling lemon water served with honey while a few of my friends opted for traditional Nepalese milk tea (served with yak milk).

Nepalese food is an interesting fusion of Indian and Chinese, but its limited by its elevation. The high elevations, coupled with cold climate, severely limit the amount of vegetables that can be cultivated in Nepal. This leads to the importation of food products. In Nepal you can find delicious momos, which are quite like Chinese dumplings (baozi). There are good curries, which resemble some of what is found in India and Sri Lanka (though not as spicy). From what my friends told me, the standard Nepalese fair is rice with lentils, potatoes, and maybe some mutton.

Nepal is much poorer than Sri Lanka; their economy is not very developed. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, and is still struggling to overcome the Maoist revolts. To This day there is no constitution. The largest contributor to GDP is tourism, and the second largest are remittances from Nepalis working abroad. This is a point of contention for many families, quite like Sri Lanka. The father, as primary wage earner, can work abroad and provide the family with a better life. But doing so means that his wife and children will see him only once a year, for a few weeks at most.

It is easy to see why tourism is such a large component of Nepal’s economy. Kathmandu, in spite of the pollution, poor roads, and shaky infrastructure, is a wonderful city to visit. There are a number of beautiful temples and stupas, lots of great restaurants catering to westerners, and some amazing hiking trails. Mount Everest is a prime draw, with a few brave souls risking their lives to summit it every year (and spending a pretty penny at that).

After a few months of battling the tropical heat of Sri Lanka, I welcomed the cool air. Sleeping under a fluffy down comforter, and feeling my bones chill really made me get in the holiday spirits. Being able to sit in the sun, and not break out in perspiration, was a remarkable feat. I was surrounded by a number of other Americans, and I could have been fooled into thinking I was back in the States.

The conference started, and I was surprised to learn that in 2001 there were only 4 countries with ETAs in them, in 2012 there were 69 countries. Our conference was for ETAs from South and Central Asia, for which there are about 40 of us across seven countries – Bangladesh, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Tajikistan. I was surprised to learn that there were about 250 applications for the 40 teaching spots. The conference was an opportunity for the ETAs to share their experiences with one another, from general facts about host countries to challenges and opportunities in the classroom. After the ETAs presented, we had the opportunity to learn from experienced English teachers about what tactics have worked for them over the years.

Hearing what some other ETAs are going through really put my situation into perspective. I had been debating asking for a transfer out of Trinco, due to my inability to find housing. But after hearing that my colleagues in Central Asia were dealing with students being ‘bride napped’ and nuclear fallout from Soviet testing grounds, while the Indian ETAs were dealing with students in excess of fifty students, things didn’t seem quite so bad out in Trinco. I’d go as far to say that Sri Lanka is among the best placements for South and Central Asia. And I might have rubbed in the fact that Sri Lanka was named the top tourist destination in the world for 2013…

After the first day of conferences we had an opening ceremony that was a great deal of fun. It took place outdoors, with the aid of several gas fired heaters. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Nepalis have a taste for whiskey; when I went to the bar and ordered a Johnny Walker on the rocks the waiter handed me my glass, and then proceeded to pour another glass full of scotch into mine. Quite nice of him. Later in the week I was able to sample some local spirits at a banquet. One was a rice wine, which is quite like Korea’s makgeolli. My personal favorite was apple brandy served with boiling water, honey, ghee, and toasted rice kernels. Cheers. It warms you up after being chilled by the Himalayan air, just watch out for the gaseous fumes until it cools.

One of the ETAs in Sri Lanka had to leave the conference early, after just two short days in Nepal. While I wish she could have stayed, we were really excited because her wedding was to be held that week. For the past few years she has been dating a Sri Lankan, and when their horoscopes were read two weeks ago Thursday, at 6:22am was the most auspicious time for them to be wed.

As much of our time was spent in conference halls, I opted to wake up each morning around sunrise to explore the city for a few hours, save for one day when the fluffy comforter and warm bed were too enticing.

There is something quite remarkable about seeing a city wake up, especially in Nepal. The early morning light is beautiful, and it is amazing to witness throngs of devotees practice their morning worship. It seems like every street in Kathmandu has a place of worship. I have not seen a country as thankful as Nepal, especially considering their poverty. It was remarkable and inspiring.

We had two free afternoons, where the Fulbright Commission planned out some excursions. The first free afternoon was spent hiking from Telkot to Cahngu Narayan. The second day was a choice between touring the Boudanath Stupa tour or Kathmandu Durbar Square. As I’d already seen the Boudanath Stupa, I opted to tour Kathmandu Durbar Square (note that there are four Durbar Squares in Kathamndu) and Swayambhunath – also known as Monkey Temple.

I do not like monkeys. They’re mischievous little creatures that seem to only cause problems. While walking up the stairs of Swayambhunath there were several fights were monkeys let out blood curdling screams. They play with their own feces, and are generally disruptive. One of the ETAs in India came down with salmonella after petting a monkey at a zoo. Definitely creatures to avoid.

On our last day in Nepal, our flight was scheduled to depart from Kathmandu to Mumbai at 2:30pm. The logical thing to do before departing was to catch the 7am mountain flight operated by Buddha Air, and get some up close views of Mount Everest. The flight was delayed, unsurprisingly, but we managed to take off by eight. We flew on a tiny prop plane, about twenty minutes until we started seeing the mountain ranges. Each passenger was allowed up in the cockpit, to enjoy some stunning views of the mountain range. The flight was fantastic, and well worth the money spent.

I could have spent another week or two in Nepal, I would have loved to explore outside of the Kathmandu valley. Hopefully I have the chance to visit Nepal again in the future. While going through customs in Kathmandu, the inspector was quite perplexed as to why I wore glasses in my passport photo, but wasn’t wearing them now. He was also curious to learn why I had received a free entry visa. After explaining to him that I had contacts (lasik surgery was a bit too much to explain) and that I was here on a conference through the embassy, I was cleared for departure.

Landing in Mumbai, finding a stable internet connection was a priority. I checked with two different airport personnel who informed me that I could get an access code after I went through customs; they advised me to visit the duty free shops. Once through security, I started asking around. To my dismay, no one seemed to know about the access code I was referring to, and I was advised by one gentleman to purchase a new sim card or ask a local for help. Mumbai is an international airport; theoretically their customers are travelers from across the globe, many of which may not have a local number. It was frustrating to say the least, so I ended up trying to catch a few hours shut eye before our 2:30am departure to Colombo.

We landed in Colombo around 5am local time. Our driver whisked us back to our friends house, about 45 minutes from the airport. After brushing my teeth, I passed out on a couch until nine. I spent the day in a groggy haze, and ran some errands. At nine I caught the overnight train back to Trinco, and arrived at 5 in the morning. I hopped a tuk-tuk to Sarvodaya’s hostel, and spent most of day catching up on sleep.

It feels good to be back in Sri Lanka, to breath fresh air after a week of dust in Nepal and recycled air on planes.

 

Friendsgiving

December 8, 2012 — Leave a comment

Friends ŸgivŸ ing |FRiENDsˈgiviNG|

The Oxford American Dictionary defines a friend as:
a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.
They define giving as:
freely transfer the possession of (something) to (someone); hand over to.
Though I much prefer their secondary definition:
bestow (love, affection, or other emotional support).

Friendsgiving was celebrated by the Sri Lankan Fulbrighters a week after Thanksgiving. After two weeks of teaching in our placements, it was a welcomed night – but a bit odd. I felt like I could have been anywhere in the world, even back in America. It was needed, for everyone.

The past two weeks had been a bit stressful, some of the researchers had to move quickly due to extreme harassment by a local. The first weeks of teaching were a bit rough for the teachers, getting settled. And I’m still homeless.

But things have a way of working out in Sri Lanka. The new apartment the researchers are in is beautiful, and cheaper than their house. Teachers are getting settled in, and the past week in Nepal was so helpful. While I’m still house searching, it looks like I should have a place soon.

I’m really grateful for my Fulbright friends. We’ve all gotten really close in the past two months. I shouldn’t be surprised, but we’ve all meshed really well. We all have a lot in common; recent American college grads who have an interest in Sri Lanka and international affairs. Living together for the first month helped a lot, and now traveling around the country (and region). It is amazing how close you get to people in such a short period of time. One of my friends made the comment in Nepal that she could tell when I’ve had coffee because I “… become much more interested in people.”

I’m also really excited that the researchers are starting to get out East; it will be great to have people coming to visit as I try to build a network in Trinco.


Happy Thanksgiving

November 22, 2012 — 2 Comments

Thanksgiving has come and gone in Sri Lanka, largely it was unnoticed. In an attempt to share some American culture with my students, I decided that the entirety of my classes today would be based on the American festival of Thanksgiving.

I began class by writing the following on the board: Today is Thursday, November 22. In America it Thanksgiving, a holiday that is like Pongal.

The comparison to Pongal, the Tamil harvest festival, helped. But I was surprised that the word holiday caused some problems. My students were confused about the difference between a holy day and a holiday. For my later classes I opted to exclude the word holiday, in favor of festival. Things went better.

I then spoke for a few minutes about the festival, telling my students about turkey, parades, pie, and football. Most of this was lost on them, so I pulled out my secret weapon – Charlie Brown.

We watched a great YouTube highlight reel of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Having these visuals helped to convey the holiday. I then brought up some footage from the Macy’s Parade, and they got the concept; they preferred saying big balloons though.

Turkey was a hard sell. They thought I meant chicken, and it took a lot of selling on my part to convince them that a turkey was distinct from a chicken.

When we got to the word pie, I was heartbroken. They had no idea what a pie was, the pictures were of no help. Imagine leading a life and having no conception of pie. After I told them that pie is a sweet, like cake, they were accepting of the strange dish.

Football was an easier sell. Like Europe, Sri Lanka refers to soccer as football. But I had a miniature football that I broke out. My class of boys thought I meant rugby, while the girls just accepted it.

Class went pretty well today.

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As for me, my dinner consisted of rice and curry. This was the first, and hopefully only, Thanksgiving that I ate dinner alone. It was an unremarkable occasion, and it really made me appreciate all of the great Thanksgivings with the family.

A Thanksgiving delayed is better than a Thanksgiving denied. Growing up in a restaurant family you get used to celebrating holidays on off days. The date of celebration doesn’t matter as much as the act of celebrating. I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of next Friday, when the Fulbrighters of Sri Lanka will join together to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Living and working in Sri Lanka has made me much more thankful for all the amenities we enjoy in America. But this year, the thing I’m most thankful for is my fellow Fulbrighters. It’s great to have someone in your own times zone (and country code) to call or text during those rough moments that invariably arise when living abroad.

I can’t wait to write the blog post Thanksgiving Part Two.

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Plain Tea

November 21, 2012 — Leave a comment

Tea is life in Sri Lanka.

It’s always tea time. When you wake up tea is served, when you meet someone tea is served.

Sri Lanka grows some amazing teas, mostly of the black variety. Green tea is grown here, but mostly for export. If you want to buy green tea here, your best bet is to go to the pharmacy section of a grocery store.

Tea in Sri Lanka is typically served with milk and lots of sugar. Occasionally, it is served with cinnamon and other spices. In Sri Lanka, ‘plain tea’ is black tea with sugar and without milk. I’ve found that if you want just a plain cup of tea, you must ask for ‘plain tea, no sugar.’

Brownie

November 15, 2012 — Leave a comment

He hadn’t noticed me approaching in the predawn darkness. Sitting, it seemed that he had fallen asleep while watching the gate. It was only as I opened the gate did he regain consciousness, startled by the clamor of the latch and sliding of the heavy door. Rising, he limped towards me. As I begin to close the gate he comes out to the street; he stares at me as his tag softly wags.

Brownie is but one of the many stray dogs in Sri Lanka. Unlike many, he is plump and fairly clean. His front paw is deformed, and apparently he’s been here for as long as anyone can remember. Here at Sarvodaya’s headquarters, in Moratuwa, Brownie has found a home. The streams of international volunteers feed this pitiful creature, and he is grateful for the attention. The local staffers laugh at us, as we feed him scraps; over the course of two days I caught more than one of those who mocked rubbing his belly.

As I leave the headquarters, on my way to Trinco, he sits by the gate watching me and cries.

Sri Lanka does not know what to do with its dogs. In a country where not every human has access to the basic necessities of life, it makes sense that dogs are not looked after. Some people do keep dogs as pets, and those dogs range from muts to pure breeds. A few of my friends are renting an attached house in Colombo; their landlord’s dog is an ancient creature, who is quite mangy.

You become accustomed to the dogs in your neighborhood. When I stayed in Dehiwala, outside of Colombo, a few of my neighbors took to feeding the neighborhood strays. While you might recognize these strays, it’s generally advisable to avoid them.

Three weeks back I spent the weekend by the beach, in Unawatuna. On Sunday morning I woke with the sun and decided on taking a leisurely jog through town. As it turns out, stray dogs don’t appreciate someone running through town at seven in the morning. An emaciated one eyed dog started snarling at me as I came through town. I stopped and slowly started backing up, looking at a neighboring car I could jump on. Out of nowhere a coconut struck the dog and it ran off with a yelp. An elderly man, skin wrinkled and garbed in a sarong, started laughing and waved at me – urging me to continue on my run. I smiled and thanked him; as he likely saved me a trip to the hospital and round of rabies vaccinations.

In a country where the President is trying to impeach the Chief Justice, the Universities are set to close on yet another strike, and the scars of a civil war – which lasted for nearly three decades – still run deep, the fate of a few stray dogs is not a matter of concern for most.

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A stray dog escaping the rain at Sarvodaya in Trinco.

A few days ago I ordered dinner from Maldivian Bliss, a restaurant that is right up the road from the bungalow where I am staying. I stopped in on my walk back from the grocery store, around 5 pm, and ordered food to be delivered between 6:30 and 7pm.

After getting home and unpacking my groceries 7pm quickly rolled past, and I still had no food. By 7:15 I was really hungry, and getting cranky. I searched Apple Maps on my iPhone; unsurprisingly I could not find the listing. The new Apple Maps might be bad in America, but its worthless in Sri Lanka. For some reason Apple thinks its best to show me roads in Columbus, Ohio over roads in Colombo, Sri Lanka. I quickly switched to Google Maps, which is usually quite good here, and was frustrated when I couldn’t find the restaurant listing.

I figured as a shot in the dark that I’d do a quick search on Google, and I was shocked that the restaurant had a foursquare listing. I called the number listed on the page and was connected with the manager of the restaurant, who told me the delivery boy had gotten lost on a side street while trying to find my bungalow. A few minutes later, after being connected to the delivery boy, I had a delicious serving of chicken cheese Koththu Roti. It was really surprising that FourSquare was the platform which enabled me to find the restaurant I was looking for, especially since Google didn’t have the listing.

Since this happened I’ve been utilizing FourSquare much more on my iPhone, and its been really helpful in finding restaurants when I’m wandering through city streets in Sri Lanka. I’ve used it with great success in Colombo and Kandy, and I’m curious to see if any listings have been built up out in Trinco – which doesn’t have many tourists visting.

FourSquare has a great opportunity to build its listings in tourist destinations. If they were to partner with someone like Lonely Planet they would be able to capture vast amounts of information and help make it more accessible, by letting travelers comment and build upon the data base. Lonely Planet has great guide books, and a decent forum. Whereas FourSquare is built around discoverability; if I find a great new restaurant I’m a lot more likely to check in with Foursquare than email Lonely Planet about it.

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Google Maps is usually spot on when finding locations in Sri Lanka. Since Apple released iOS 6, Google Maps is no longer the native map app. This means I have to access it as a web app, which can render it unusable at times in Colombo – especially when I’m trying to figure out when to get off the bus.

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Apple Maps, the native app in iOS 6, is built upon TomTom’s database. It’s utterly useless in Sri Lanka. It cannot find common locations such as the US Embassy or Galle Face Hotel. and it doesn’t recognize addresses inputted into it. Many of the street names are incorrect, like School Road on this map; if you look Google Maps it is correctly labeled as College Avenue. It’s only use is determining your location.

 

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Foursquare, which on the iPhone utilizes Apple’s Maps, is surprisingly helpful. As it utilizes the native app, its able to provide real time tracking about my location (which is really helpful when I’m making sure my tuk-tuk driver is headed in the correct direction). Since it has users provide GPS coordinates for businesses when they ‘check-in’ to a location, it is able to plot them on a map. It has been incredibly helpful using FourSquare to get around, and I’m sure that this app will become one of the most valuable ones on my phone.

Last weekend I went to a Sing-A-Long fundraiser for the Peter Weeraekera Children’s Home. This was my first introduction to Colombo society, and it was a great deal of fun. I attended the event with several other Fulbrighters, it was held at the BMICH hall in Colombo.

The Orphanage houses about 50 girls, all of whom attend school. The money raised at the event goes towards covering their living expenses and providing scholarships for academically gifted girls to attend private schools.

After settling into our table the music started a few minutes later, and the band played a few introductory songs to get the crowd going. All of the attendees were provided with a booklet of song lyrics, ranging from Sinhalese favorites to “Old Suzanna”. After four or five songs, tables started going up to sing. It wasn’t long before the event organizer came up to get our table up to sing; the song we choose was “This Land Is Your Land”.

After singing, it was only natural that our host insisted we start dancing. For a while we were the only ones on the dance floor, but soon we started to be joined by others at the party. The little girls, dressed in beautiful saris, enjoyed dancing with a few of the Fulbrighters.

The highlight of the event was towards the end of the night when a kind Sri Lankan brought over some rum for our table; sadly we had not been informed that the event was a BYO. Ganesh, the man who pitied us enough to share some liquor, was a really interesting man. I will never forget what he told me:

If you have any problems let me know, not that you will have problems in Sri Lanka. We are a very kind people. But if you do, we know police, the army, and the ministries  If they cant help you, I know the President. He can help you, a very nice man. 
I doubt it will be necessary, but I’ll be sure to keep his business card on hand…

 

Sigiriya

October 31, 2012 — Leave a comment

While in Kandy we decided to make the trip out to Sigriya, the ancient rock fortress and monastery near the center of Sri Lanka. From Kandy it was a two hour drive out to the historical site, and we arrived shortly after nine in the morning. It is an impressive site, and the main site sits some 500 feet in the air. 

The cost of admission is 3900 LKR (USD $30) for non-residents and about 70 LKR (USD $0.54) for locals. You enter the grounds by first passing through the ticket booth and then crossing a bridge over the moat which surrounds the rock. Walking along the entrance path you are surrounded by pools, walkways, and other architectural features. It is really quite amazing that some of the man made ponds still have water in them today.

 

Along the walk up to the stairs there are many signs warning you about the imminent threat of hornets, though I never saw any flying around. 

 

 

The original staircases are still intact for much of the climb, until you reach about halfway up. At that point you have to switch to metal steps that are considerably rusted and wobbly, after a frightening few minutes you are rewarded with some truly amazing frescoes.

About an hour after we started climbing, we reached the top of Sigiriya, and the views from the top were amazing. Somehow a few stray dogs had managed to get up to the top as well, I was really shocked to see them lounging in the shade. I was particularly drenched in sweat, but I could not have been happier.

Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka’s greatest historical sites, and its commemorated on the 2,000 LKR bill, if you have the opportunity to visit this site I really recommend it. Just don’t forget to bring a few liters of water with you for the hike up.